Sermon Preached by Nancy Antrim on October 21, 2018
That’s take a moment to set the scene for today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples were on the road to Jerusalem when Jesus took Peter aside and asked him who do you say I am? Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. Then Jesus predicted his own death. This was the first pronouncement. Jesus had revealed that he was aware of what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Only one prediction was necessary, but he made three asserting its reliability and inevitability. Were the disciples listening? If they were, Peter at least did not want to hear because he rebuked Jesus for announcing his death. Jesus proceeded to teach the crowd and the disciples, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”(8:34). Again Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection. This is the second pronouncement. As they continued on their way Jesus came upon the disciples arguing over who was the greatest. Could they have understood? Surely not if they were arguing over who was the greatest. Everyone wants to be special, to be first, to be noticed and the disciples were ordinary people just like you and me. I had never been athletic and I still remember the pain and sadness I felt at being picked last for teams in school. We want that trophy, that blue ribbon, that recognition. And so the disciples argued as to who was the greatest. Jesus revoked them and told them that to be first they must be last; that they were to be servants. He tried to explain that he had come to serve not to be served. Immediately following this argument, Jesus again asserted that he would suffer and die. See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. This is the third pronouncement. Did they listen to what Jesus had said? Did they acknowledge Jesus’ anticipation of suffering and death? No, for now it was James and John, the sons of Zebedee who came to Jesus with a request. They weren’t listening or understanding for they were imagining a triumphant, regal scene with Jesus as a king, a ruler and they said to him “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask.” He said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory.” They wanted to be seated in positions of honor and power. In that time and place, people usually reclined on couches around a low table to eat at banquets or feasts. When James and John request to sit at Jesus right and left hands in his glory, they are imagining Jesus as a king sitting at a table with his chief advisors at his right and left hands.
Three times Jesus repeated the prediction of his death. Three times. They had not heard Jesus or refused to hear this dire news even though Jesus repeated it three times. Now Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ inner circle. On several occasions, including the transfiguration (9:2-8) and later in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:32-42), Jesus has these three accompany him to the exclusion of the other disciples. You would have thought these three would have understood. And yet it is these three that do not understand any more than the other disciples did.
Jesus replied to James and John that they have no idea what they are asking for. Can they drink the same “cup” of suffering and death he must drink? Still clueless, James and John affirm that they can, and Jesus replies that they indeed will. By the time that Mark is written, James will have been killed by Herod Agrippa I in 44 C.E. for his role as a leader in the Jerusalem church. The fate of John is uncertain, though traditionally it was reported that he lived into old age in Ephesus; although at least one source reports his martyrdom. Acts 4 tells of his arrest in Jerusalem. Whether he was martyred or not, we can assume that his was not an easy life.
Nonetheless, positions of honor are not Jesus’ to give. James and John may have been thinking of something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), but in Mark, the only ones to be at Jesus’ left and right will be the bandits crucified with him when he is “enthroned” as “The King of the Jews.” (15:27)
The other disciples were angered by James and John’s request. Jesus called the disciples together and tried to explain to them how the dominion of God is different than the dominions of the world. He described the rulers of the pagan world, the Roman Empire, as tyrants. They lord it over their subjects and are to be served by their subjects, unlike Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus redefined what it meant to be first; what it meant to be great. To be first you must be last. To be great, you must be a servant. To be first is to be a slave of all. Slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder and there was no honor or reward in being a slave, yet Christ calls us to serve all—to become slaves of all. When we do so, we serve Christ.
However, the disciples consistently fail to comprehend either the passion predictions or Jesus’ instruction on discipleship following each prediction. Jesus is so different from the expected messiah that they just don’t “get it.”
It is difficult to understand how the disciples could fail to understand what Jesus was saying in predicting his death or in describing discipleship, but we see that same failing in the church today. Are we listening? Do we understand?
How do we measure greatness? Our world tends to define greatness in terms of power, privilege, and prestige. We measure the importance of a person by external markers – the house they own, the car they drive, the ostentatious nature of their lifestyle. We are impressed by the visible achievement of people: their prestigious honors and academic degrees, the importance of their profession, and sometimes even the accomplishments of their children. These are all what the world values.
But when Jesus speaks of greatness he inevitably links it with service. As he said to James and John, that which makes us great is not our ability to rule over others, but, rather, our ability to invest ourselves for the welfare of others. In a world where most people want to put as little as is necessary into life and to get out as much as possible, our Lord speaks of a better way.
Jesus calls us to that “better way” today. Only when we are willing to put more into life than we take out, to put service to others in a place of honor, only then, Jesus tells us, are we worthy to be called his followers.
But even some interpretations of the gospel aren’t listening.The Prosperity Gospel teaches that Jesus wants us to prosper. We have but to believe to grow rich. They fail to hear Jesus’ message of cross-bearing, service, and sacrifice.
Even we have paralleled the request of these two brothers, James and John, when we emphasize in our prayers asking for things rather than giving praise, adoration, thanksgiving as well as confession. Are we praying “Lord, give me ….”. Then is our request so different from the request of James and John?
Jesus calls us to service rather than power. He challenges us to live in his kingdom in the here-and-now. If we have truly heard Jesus’ message, we will act it out both as individuals and as the church, which is the body of Christ. Whether it is a cup of water for the thirsty, a bag of groceries for the hungry, or warm coats for those who have none; whether it is visiting the sick or the imprisoned or sitting with those who mourn, we are called to serve.
When we leave this morning, we will be told our worship is over and our service begins. Let that be our hope as we hear those words. Amen.